What Was Andre Thinking? The Rescuers of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon
Pastor Andre Trocme was an anomaly. As a righteous rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust, his story is perplexing not only because of his actions – which were exemplary and courageous – but because of the indifference toward the plight of the Jews exhibited by most European Christians who did nothing. The question that has puzzled historians is, what caused Andre to intercede when other Christians refused? What was Andre thinking that others were not? Yes, there were other righteous gentiles like Andre – just under 30,000 to be exact – according to Israel’s Holocaust Museum and research center, Yad Vashem. This number represents just .001 percent of the population of Europe, which was 300 million at the time. Andre’s story is fascinating because not only did he personally rescue Jews from certain death, but he also inspired five thousand mountain hamlet residents to do likewise. Let me explain.
In the sleepy mountains of southeastern France rests the village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon. During the Nazi occupation of France, Le Chambon numbered almost 5,000 people, many of whom adhered to the Protestant French Huguenot tradition. Historians are baffled by the activities of these villagers during the Nazi occupation. Throughout Christian Europe during the Holocaust, Jews were sheltered by many well-meaning Christians. However, there is little evidence of church congregations or Christian organizations being involved in rescuing Jews. On the contrary, apathetic and complicit Christians quickly turned their Jewish acquaintances in to the Nazis. In France alone, 83,000 Jews were delivered by their Christian neighbors to the death camps – among them were 10,000 children. In this way, the village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon stands alone as the largest group of Christians who worked together to protect Jews. Remarkably, each family in the village took Jews into their homes. If one community member had informed the Nazi authorities of the villagers’ activities, the entire population of townspeople would have suffered.
Andre Trocme was the pastor of the Huguenot church in Le Chambon, and he led the villagers to give refuge for several years to nearly five thousand Jews – an astonishing number. In their years of evasive activity, several village members were arrested. For their kindness to the Jews, they were murdered by the Nazis. One of these Christian martyrs was Pastor Trocme’s cousin, Daniel Trocme. He was a teacher in the village school and was sheltering five Jewish students. The children were sent to Auschwitz, where they died, and Daniel was deported to Lublin Madanes concentration camp, where he died. Another martyr was the Physician of Le Chambon, Dr. Roger Le Forestier.
He was instrumental in preparing false documents for Jews to help them escape to Switzerland. Dr. Forestier was arrested on August 20th, 1944, and shot on the order of the Gestapo in Lyon. Because of the unwavering leadership of Pastor Andre Trocme, the entire village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon has been inducted into the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem – being given the title of Righteous Among the Nations. They were afforded this honor because of their humanitarianism and bravery in the face of peril and death. In this way, Andre Trocme and the villagers of Le Chambon are a kind of abnormality – a blip on the heart monitor in a time that otherwise was flatlined throughout the churches of France where Christians did not have a heart.
So, what caused Pastor Andre Trocme to mount an ambitious rescue effort when the majority of pastors and Christians under Nazi occupation remained silent? What was Andre thinking that others were not thinking? Some have explained his actions as a kind of split-second impulse – like one jumping onto the subway tracks to rescue a fallen commuter before the train comes – Andre, they say, acted without much thought. He was simply responding to a moral injustice out of pure fearlessness rather than thoughtful reasoning. I disagree. I think Andre Trocme had been thinking for a long time.
At heart, Andre was a non-conformist in a sea of Christian leaders who were riding the bandwagon of anti-Judaism and Antisemitism. Andre was born into a bourgeois, cosmopolitan family in northern France and completed his postgraduate work in New York at Union Theological Seminary. He was a pacifist that opposed the rise of the Nazis, and his vocal activism led his denomination – The French Reformed Church – to remove him from his parish and send he and his wife Magda to the obscure farming village of Le Chambon as a form of punishment. When the deportation of Jews began in Paris in 1942, Pastor Trocme proclaimed in a sermon, “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its cowardice.” He would also later say, “Look hard to make little moves against destructiveness.”
Because Andre thought through the plight of the Jews and then acted in moral courage by leading Le Chambon in a rescue effort, does this mean that other Christian pastors were not thinking? Did they not have the intellectual forethought of Andre? These leaders were thinking as well. It was just that they were thinking about themselves, about their positions, about appealing to their base, and about pleasing their denominational superiors and government authorities. This is what Malcolm Gladwell describes in the preface to his book, What the Dog Saw, as “the people in the middle”: “You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world…People at the top are self-conscious about what they say because they have position and privilege to protect.” I would add that self-consciousness is the enemy of courage. This was true in Andre’s time, and it’s true in ours.
It’s the people in the middle – the ones without power and privilege to protect who will do the work of advocating for Jewish existence at a time when Jews are losing their guest status in places like – America. When Kanye West blabbered on about his growing rage against Jews in a recent tweet, “I’m a bit sleepy tonight, but when I wake up I’m going death-con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE”– he was thinking his worldwide audience would agree with him. He was attempting to appeal to his base. The ADL and other Jewish organizations spoke out against West’s Antisemitic rhetoric but from church pulpits across America – we mostly heard the sound of crickets.
There is an unspoken rule among many Christian leaders that supporting Israel is noble but defending American Jews is not. Like Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, who offered the opening prayer at the dedication ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and, with the same voice, proclaimed his disdain for Judaism and religious Jews, “God sends good people to hell. Not only do religions like…Judaism…lead people away from God, but they also lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell. Hell is not only going to be populated by murderers…hell is going to be filled with good religious people (Jews).” In both the prayer and the Antisemitic remarks, Pastor Jeffress was appealing to his base to protect his power and privilege.
Former President Donald Trump unashamedly supports the state of Israel, but American Jews – not so much. In a post on his Truth Social platform, he recently stated, “No President has done more for Israel than I have. Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S….U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel – before it’s too late.” He, too, was sending a clear message to his base: “Israeli Jews good. American Jews bad.” He was informing his Evangelical base that his support of Israel had not blinded him to the fact that most American Jews don’t wholeheartedly appreciate his approach to politics.
What was true in Andre’s time is true today. It’s the people in the middle who have no power or position to protect that will do the work of Jewish advocacy in a time of growing Antisemitism. This is what Andre was thinking all along – that he cared nothing about power or privilege. He had nothing but his righteous conscious to protect. My hope is that Christians in the middle today will follow in Andre Trocme’s righteous footsteps.